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Talking and understanding speech go hand in hand. By listening to others, your child learns what words sound like and how to put a sentence together.
As a baby, she discovered first how to make sounds, then how to make those sounds into real words ("mama" and "dada" may have slipped out as early as 4 or 5 months). By the time she was a year old, she was trying to imitate the sounds around her (though you probably heard her babbling away in a language that only she could understand).
Now comes a period of extraordinary growth, as your toddler goes from speaking a few simple words to asking questions, giving directions, and even telling you stories she's made up.
When and how it develops
Here's a general idea of how you can expect your toddler's verbal skills to progress. Keep in mind that every child is different. Children pick up language in stages, and kids may reach those stages at different times.
If your child varies somewhat from these general guidelines, don't worry. (If he's being raised in a bilingual environment, the number of words he can speak may be split between the two languages he's learning.)
12 to 18 months
By his first birthday, your child will probably begin to use one or two words meaningfully. Over the next few months, he'll try to copy words, and you may hear him babbling away as if he's having a real conversation. He'll even practice speech sounds, raising his tone when asking a question. He might say "Up-py?" when asking to be carried, for example.
Your toddler is learning the power of talking as a means of communicating his needs. Until he learns more words to get his ideas and desires across, he'll probably combine his speech with gestures to show what he wants. He'll reach his arms toward his favorite toy, for example, and say "ball."
Some toddlers develop a whole sign language of gestures to communicate with their parents. Your child might put his fingers to his lips when he wants food, for example, or pound on the table when he's frustrated.
Don't worry if he struggles to get his meaning across now and then. This frustration is actually a healthy sign that he's trying hard to communicate and cares whether you understand him.
By 18 months, your toddler will probably start making many common consonant sounds, such as t, d, n, w, and h. Learning to make these sounds is a watershed event, one that leads to the rapid vocabulary spurt that most children go through at this stage. Don't expect to hear all these sounds in actual words yet. But you may hear him repeating them when he's alone in his crib or playing with his toys.
19 to 24 months
Your child now understands simple commands and questions. Each month she'll add more words to her vocabulary. Many of these words will be nouns that designate objects in her daily life, such as "spoon" and "car."
During this phase your child may begin stringing two words together, making basic sentences such as "Carry me." Since her grammar skills are still undeveloped, you'll hear odd constructions such as "Me go."
She's understood for some time that she needs language and will attempt to name new objects as she observes the world around her. She may overextend the words she already knows, though, so that all new animals are called "dogs," for example.
Starting around her second birthday, your child will begin using simple two- to four-word sentences and singing simple tunes. As her sense of self matures, she'll use "me" to refer to herself, and she's likely to tell you what she likes and doesn't, what she thinks, and what she feels.
You may also hear her say, "Jenny want milk" or "Baby throw," for instance. (Pronouns are tricky, so you may notice her avoiding them.)
25 to 30 months
Now that he has a bigger vocabulary, your toddler will begin to experiment with sound levels. For a while he may yell when he means to speak normally and whisper softly when answering a question, but he'll find the appropriate volume soon enough.
He's also starting to get the hang of pronouns, such as "I," "me," and "you." Between ages 2 and 3, his working vocabulary will grow to 200 words or more. He'll string nouns and verbs together to form complete but simple sentences, such as "I eat now."
He'll even get the hang of speaking about events that happened in the past. He may not quite understand the particulars of the past tense or plurals, though, so you'll hear him say things like "I runned" or "I swimmed," or "mouses" instead of "mice." Sure, it's cute, but it also shows that he's picking up on the basic rules of grammar (that you add a d sound to a word if it happened yesterday, for example, and an s sound to make things plural).
At this age, your child will start answering simple questions, such as "Do you want a snack?" and "Where are your shoes?" If you notice that he doesn't use two-word phrases, consistently echoes your familiar expressions, or doesn't respond to his name, bring it up with your child's doctor. Such behavior can be an early sign of a developmental delay.
31 to 36 months
By the time he turns 3, your child will be a more sophisticated talker. She'll be able to carry on a sustained conversation and adjust her tone, speech patterns, and vocabulary to fit the person she's talking to. For instance, she'll often use simpler words with a peer ("I need go potty") but more complex constructions with you ("I need to go to the bathroom"). She'll also understand simple rules of grammar and use plurals and pronouns correctly.
By now, other adults, including strangers, should be able to understand almost everything your child says, which means you won't have to do as much translating. She'll even be a pro at saying her first and last name and her age – and will readily oblige when asked.
You can help your child's language skills along by providing a rich and nurturing communication environment. The most important things to do:
- Talk. Research shows that parents who talk to their baby play a critical role in their child's language development. You don't need to chatter nonstop, but speak to your child whenever you're together. Describe what you're doing, point things out, ask questions, sing songs. (Although some baby talk is okay, resist the temptation to coo and babble. Your child will learn to speak well by listening to you speak well.)
- Read. Reading to your child is a great way to expose him to new vocabulary, the way sentences are put together, and how stories flow. But don't just read the words – ask your child to find things in the illustrations or tell you what happened to the characters.
- Listen. When your child talks to you, be a good listener – look at her and be responsive. She's more likely to speak up when she knows you're interested in what she's saying.
When to be concerned
You're the best person to gauge your child's speech development. If he's showing any of the signs listed below and you feel concerned, it's a good idea to discuss the possibility of a language delay or hearing problem with your child's doctor.
If it seems necessary, your doctor will refer your child to a pediatric speech-language pathologist for an evaluation. (A searchable directory of certified therapists can be found on the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association's website.) Your doctor's office, daycare provider, or local school might also be able to direct you to an early intervention program in your area that will provide free screening for language problems.
Some signs to look out for:
12 to 18 months
Your child isn't saying any words by 12 months (including "mama" or "dada"), didn't babble before his first birthday, is unable to point to things, doesn't respond to others or his name, or you still can't understand a word he's saying by 18 months.
19 to 24 months
Your child rarely attempts to speak or imitate others and doesn't seem to get frustrated when you can't understand what she wants.
25 to 36 months
Your child doesn't know what to do with everyday objects, doesn't understand simple instructions, doesn't use two-word phrases by 30 months, doesn’t ask questions, can't pronounce vowels or be understood half the time by someone who doesn't know him by the time he's 3, or loses skills he once had.
If your child stutters, it doesn't necessarily signal a problem. Stuttering is a normal phase, especially when his thinking and language skills are expanding more rapidly than his speech and fine motor skills. Sometimes he'll be so excited to tell you what's on his mind that he can't get the words out fast enough.
Parents can help by modeling slow, even speech patterns with wait time before entering conversations. Take time to sit down and have quiet conversations with your child. Try not to complete sentences or interrupt your child's speech, just give him time with good eye contact and appropriate non-verbal feedback like patiently nodding your head.
But if stuttering continues for more than six months, or if it's bad enough that he tenses his jaw or grimaces in an effort to get the words out, talk with his doctor about it.
What comes next
As your child grows, she'll become more of a chatterbox. There might be moments when you long for those peaceful days of speechlessness, but for the most part, you'll delight in her play-by-plays of what happened at preschool, what she thinks about things, and her descriptions of what her best friend likes to eat.
Your child will begin to understand and use correct tenses, along with the contractions "won't" and "can't." Oh, and get ready for every why, what, and who question under the sun.